Drive-thru Deliverance

It's not called est anymore, but you can still be ridiculed into self-awareness in just one expensive weekend

Landmark says it offers courses in more than 100 cities around the world, to more than 100,000 new participants annually. Corporations also hire Landmark to come in and conduct seminars for groups of employees. Landmark calls its product "technology," and proffers testimonials about the organization claiming it boosts confidence, improves relationships and increases joy in life. Some credit Landmark with their financial and professional success. Others claim it has cured physical ailments and helped them become fearless.

According to Landmark literature, more than seven out of 10 participants surveyed think the Forum is one of their life's most rewarding experiences. The company gladly distributes copies of letters of support it has received over the years from psychologists, doctors, judges, religious officials, law enforcement officials and the like.

The letters of support are also letters of defense. Controversy has so plagued the organization that its Internet home page has a "Past Controversy" icon. Click on it, and find that the controversy is blamed mostly on misconceptions about Erhard, irresponsible journalists and the misperception that Landmark is a brainwashing cult, a characterization the company contests with vigor and lawsuits.

Mark Poutenis
Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, receives numerous complaints about Landmark.
Paolo Vescia
Rick Ross, a Phoenix-based cult interventionist, receives numerous complaints about Landmark.

But to say the controversy is in the past is not entirely accurate. One of the questions the company will not answer is, "How does it work?"

To discover that, you have to take the course.

It's more than 100 degrees outside on the second weekend of September, but chilly inside the Landmark building in central Phoenix. "Anything you want in life is possible that you invent as a possibility and enroll others in your having gotten," reads one of the blackboards at the front of the room. The Forum, says another, will bring forth "the presence of a new realm of possibility."

Possibility, enroll, action -- these are buzz words that will pepper the seminar for three days. Any thoughts the paying customers have are to be expressed using this new language.

Richard and Jack are the leaders this weekend. Richard says he's a former drummer and night club owner who completed one year of college. He was a war protester. The fact that he and Jack -- who says he is a former Navy SEAL captain -- can get along is a supposed testament to the program.

When Richard opens up the microphones for questions, people ask why the long hours are necessary, why the rules are so rigid, why they are being asked questions about medications they're taking and their personal bathroom habits. Someone brings up sleep deprivation. "It's how you live your life anyway," says Richard, who seems to have a snide reply for every question.

Much of the first three hours is dedicated to teaching those of us who have already paid our money how to recruit other customers for Landmark, a theme that will be revisited often throughout the weekend.

A large man takes the mike and explains he's not willing to "involve" others in his personal transformation. Richard can't convince him otherwise. This man is "uncoachable," Richard observes. In the Forum, being uncoachable seems to mean disagreeing and trying to defend your point of view. Richard tells the man he must leave. The man makes his way out of the classroom, a precedent of humiliation set for any future dissenters.

Richard then offers everyone the chance to leave and have their money refunded. To stay, we must agree to the rules. Jack gives us a pep talk about integrity. He tells us we have none. Following the rules is our first opportunity to redeem our pathetic selves.

We must promise to show up on time, not use drugs or alcohol, be coachable, wear our name tags in a visible location and bring no food or drink into the room. We cannot take notes, talk or sit next to someone we know. Though no one will physically stop us from leaving to use the bathroom, if we do, we have no right to expect the loosely defined "transformation" we have come for.

"Getting it" requires following the rules, and those who break them will be humiliated. These rules are not just practical, they are a moral imperative. Breaking them means disappointing the group and demonstrating your weakness as a person.

An ever-revolving cast of Landmark volunteers lines the tables at the back of the room. They stare blankly, smile incessantly and cover their mouths with their hands when they whisper to each other. They pass notes to Richard and bustle around in a hyperefficient flurry.

Richard then informs us that we all are living lies, and we're supposed to introduce ourselves to others and confess the lies we tell. After several hours, something finally seems to be happening. People start going to the mikes. "I'm dead inside, but pretend to love my life," says one man. "My marriage is loveless and I pretend it's great," a woman says. Richard praises them. A stocky woman with black hair confesses that there's no joy in her life.

Before we leave for the dinner break, Richard says, "You're going out into the real world now where no one cares about your integrity." He commands us to go in groups, with our Landmark peers. We've been instructed to choose a new possibility of being for ourselves. People have created the possibility of being fearless, powerful, successful. Richard explains that we've chosen a new identity for ourselves, but others in the outside world will still treat us like our old selves.

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